Sunday, December 20, 2009

A Festive Update

Rubbing elbows with the politicians

We started off the Christmas season by ice skating around the statue of Joan of Arc and attending a holiday party at the mayor's office. The ice skating was cold and a little frightening, and the party was a little crowded and lacking victuals. Interestingly enough, the president of the University of Orléans was hosting the party, and he's from Mali. I tried to speak to him in Bambara, hoping to establish a rapport that might land me a teaching job at the university, but he didn't actually speak Bambara, having left Mali 16 years ago.
Last weekend, we volunteered to teach English Christmas carols at one of the nearby castles, La Ferté. Really we just wanted to get into the castle for free to see all the festivities, such as pony rides, hot chocolate tastings, and all the different workshops that were going on, such as a cookie decorating demonstration. Unfortunately, it's rather hard to teach small children who can't read to sing a song in English when they're only passing by, so me, Andrew, and our friend Catherine mostly ended up just singing carols for the entertainment of all. The problem was that all three of us are horrible singers, and after about 1/2 an hour, the woman in charge stopped by to say that the children were bored, and since they were so short-staffed, could we possibly instead help out in other areas of the castle? We agreed, a little grudgingly, because we were planning on catching a train back to Orléans, but felt we had to earn our keep. Andrew volunteered to help Santa, but the woman said that since Catherine spoke better French (she's a Canadian who was raised speaking French, of course she speaks better than us!) that she should help instead. For Andrew and me, that meant leading pony rides in the cold, for what was supposed to be only 1/2 hour. We put up with Andrew being kicked by a very mean pony, but once a little boy was kicked by same pony, we decided to leave before the lawsuits started flying. We called an American friend who lived nearby, and joined her and her French husband, and her American friends, for some yummy desserts before heading back home.
The next day, we went to Tours, again, to visit our friend, Justine. Despite the freezing cold, we had a wonderful time, even though I spilled hot spiced wine on my lovely white coat. That of course gave me a perfect excuse to buy a new black peacoat. And a matching hat. And a turtleneck. What else am I supposed to wear while my coat is at the dry-cleaners this week? Really, girl power is what convinced Andrew to let me spend so much money. I doubt if Justine hadn't been there I would have walked away with so many goodies.
This past week was filled with parties, though we didn't get to go to many. On Tuesday we opted to attend a party at one of Andrew's schools, forfeiting the possibility of celebrating with one of my schools and another of Andrew's, both of whom had parties at the same time. We also missed out on the secret Santa exchange between the assistants, but we still got our gifts (a bottle of hard cider for Andrew and a tarte cookbook for me). We stayed out late feasting on homemade foie gras and other savory and sweet delicacies. My homemade sugar cookies went over well.
The Principal, with his homemade foie gras, or duck liver pâté

Thursday was supposed to be another Christmas party at my school, but on it snowed all day and the teachers decided to cancel the party. It was a little frustrating for me, since I was stuck at school because the buses had stopped running and I had to wait until the end of the school day to get a ride back to town. There was only about two inches of snow on the ground, so I felt people were overreacting, but the fact that I got to skip school on Friday because of the bus situation made it all worthwhile.
We've both been doing fun Christmas activities in our schools. I had my students listen to Christmas songs like "You're a Mean One, Mr. Grinch" and "Santa Claus is Coming to Town." My older kids took a "How Naughty Were You" quiz, which they really loved. Andrew had his little ones color paper lights and string them around the room. He also continued teaching them English country dances. My schedule will be changing after the new year, and I'll have some new classes to teach. I'm especially happy because it means no more getting up at 6am! And I still have Wednesdays free, which is wonderful. I really do need that extra day off to finish lesson plans and handle administrative tasks.

Most of these presents came from my mom! :)
So now we're on vacation, enjoying the snow and the warmth of being at home, sitting in front of our lovely little tree, counting down the days until Christmas with a hot mug of butterbeer and some sugar cookies.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Monday, December 7, 2009

Paris, the City of Chrismas Lights

And now it's time for one of the rare posts from Andrew. I hope you enjoy.

This weekend, we finally took that trip to Paris we've been planning for months. We got on the train, no stress this time. We arrived at the Gare Austerlitz (train station in Paris), looked at each other, and said, "What now?" Originally, the plan was to wander around on Saturday, meet up with our friends in Paris that we've been failing to see for so long, then on Sunday, go to the museums because they're free the first Sunday of the month. We called our friends, seeing when they would be free, maybe to go out to lunch or dinner. Answering machines... Huh, turns out one went on a trip to England, and another went back to the States. FAIL. Sorry gals, hopefully we can meet up next time.

Okay, hanging out with people we know is out, let's go see the sites.

First stop: Natural History Museum. The huge whale skeletons greeting you at the doorwaywere pretty sweet. We wandered all over the museum, checking out the taxidermied animals.
I got a kick out of the ones we saw in Mali, and how they look so much better in real life. The stuffed Abyssinian roller just didn't capture the beauty of the brief flash of turquoise blue seen in the wild. The top floor was dedicated to evolution, and I got to see a first printing of Darwin's Origin of Species in addition to Lamark's works. Of course, there's a statue of Lamark outside, saying he's the grandfather of evolution. While that may be, he's a grandfather in the sense that he's off in a corner, spouting gibberish and everyone ignores him. All in all, though, one of the best Natural History Museums I've been in.

Continuing our wandering, we briefly stopped at the Notre Dame de Paris.
Been there, done that. Time for something new. We wandered around, checking out a random farmers market, full of stuff to make our mouths water. We saw a sign for the Pantheon, and decided to check it out, as neither of us had heard of it. As we approached, we were more and more amazed. Not only is the Pantheon a fabulous basilica, but it is also surrounded by the Law School and the Mayors Office, two other gorgeous edifices.
Inside, we saw the tombs of Voltaire, Emile Zola, Marie Curie, Rousseau, and Alexander Dumas. There were frescoes of Joan of Arc, Clovis, and others. And maybe coolest of all, Foucault's Pendulum (for all of you Umberto Ecco fans out there). This pendulum shows how the Earth spins on its axis. The pendulum just swings back and forth, but the table underneath it is marked like a clock and it seems like the pendulum swings its way around the clock, whereas it's really the Earth that spins the table under the pendulum. For some reason, I thought there were only 8 of these in the world, although a quick wikipedia search tells me that there's way more. Oh well, I've seen the "original."
One of the very nice things about the Pantheon and the Natural History Museums was that they were free! As teachers, we get special cards that allow us into all the cool attractions, not bad, eh?

Time for more walking. We walked around, hungry, looking for a nice place to eat that wasn't too expensive. That was a mistake, so we just walked around until it was worth the outrageous prices to satiate our hunger. Nicole had salmon and I had veal, all for 22€. Not so bad I guess. Now strengthened with full bellies, we decided to assault the Louvre, a museum larger than most shopping malls.
We went in the secret side entrance to skip the line at the glass pyramid, only to encounter longer lines inside : ( Well, we decided to come back on Sunday, and for now, just quickly use the restroom. 25 minutes later, turns out there's only two stalls for a very long line of women. Poor planning for a building three blocks long.

With empty bladders, we felt like reading a good English book, so why not stop at WH Smith, one of two English book shops in Paris. How telling it is that this city is able to support at least two English book stores. I felt like I heard more English walking around Paris than French! Anyway, I mostly remembered its location from when I went to get Nicole's surprise engagement book five years ago. The store was just where I left it, and we had a nice, relaxing time perusing their selection. I was very disappointed, however, when I saw that all of their prices were even more than the suggested retail price on the back cover. For example, we've been on a Wheel of Time kick. These books in the States cost $7.99 each new. The suggested price was £7.99 on the cover, and the sticker said 11€!!! That's $16, twice the price! And don't give me that "well, shipping from another country" and all. Printed in UK means that it travels less distance than San Francisco to LA. So I just bought some cream sodas. They were so delicious. Why hasn't the rest of the world caught on to root beer and cream soda? I miss them so.

So, by the time we left the bookshop, it was dark (5 p.m.) and we decided to hit up the Christmas Market along the Champs-Elysees. We saw a little performance of people dressed up as Musketeers, saluting with their swords, and a duel. The market was similar to ours in Orleans, only bigger, with a slightly larger variety but still your basic crepes, mulled wine, roasted chestnuts, churros, and santa hats. I would like to say we walked along the Christmas market, but really we wedged ourselves in and were carried along in the mob.

We got a chocolate banana crepe and a grand marnier crepe and then stopped for air at a little spot that was playing foxtrotty chrismas music and had Santa flying overhead in his sleigh on a guywire. It was cool. We then wedged ourselves back in until we were done with that side of the street. We decided it would be better not to go back down the other side of the street, and wanted to see the Eiffel Tower light show, but that was an hour away. Why not while away the time at the other English bookshop, Shakespear & Co.? While it was a good idea not to go back to the christmas market, maybe walking the 2 miles in the rain, back the way we came to the shop wasn't such a good idea. Along the way, we stopped at the Musee D'Orsay, but they were striking so that would have to wait til Sunday. We had a little trouble finding Shakespear & Co., but we finally got there, a refuge, and went upstairs to take a load off and read a book. I was disappointed to find the same bizarre prices as seen at WH Smith. I guess we'll just have to get our books from Amazon. It was relaxing, however, and there was some good music.

At 8 p.m., we went out to check out the Eiffel Tower light show. We didn't want to walk the 2 miles back to the actual tower, so we crossed the river to get a better view. But from far away, not having my glasses, the tower got slightly blue, then slightly green, then slightly purple. Definitely nothing very special. Maybe if we had been closer, it would have been spectacular, but as far as I'm concerned, anytime you hear "lightshow," go do something else. We walked around the right bank some more, looking for the Galeries Lafayettes, to no avail. We did see, however, other Parisian City of Lights buildings:

By this time, the blisters on our feet had blisters, so we walked through the Latin Quarter and got ourselves some drinks so we could sit down for the couple of hours until our train left. We made the train, made it home, and fell right to sleep, unable to return for another day on our feet in the hustle and the bustle, the chaos and frenzy that is Paris. We had a nice, relaxing day in quiet Orleans, with foot massages.

Until next time...

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Favorite Thanksgiving Exchange

We've celebrated three Thanksgivings in the past week; all have included the fervent hunt for cranberries. The typical conversation at the farmer's market is as follows:

Me: Hi. I'm looking for canneberge (Canadian French word for cranberries).
Farmer: Huh?
Me: Les airelles (lesser known French word).
Farmer: Huh?
Me: They're little red berries, very tart...
Farmer: Oh, you mean cranberries!

Totally bizarre.